Evolution

I
You hear the creak of the metal gate behind you, the echoing clang as it closes, but you don’t look back. The Things have caught up to us, left us drawing erratic breath under a stormy sky, standing at the edge of somewhere we don’t quite recognize.

The dunes. The distinctive smell hits us first, its sharpness invoking the spiky dune grass. We walk between clumps, each point penetrating our jeans, the skin on the back of our hands, demanding attention.

What is the progression here, we wonder, in our haze. How is a dune colonized?
We can’t know but we can imagine: A seed lands in the sand and finds it inhospitable. “Too salty, no way to hold water,” says the seed-husk to the throbbing-with-life embryonic plant cells inside, “and I’ll have you know the wind is fierce.”
Try anyway, comes the command from headquarters, and a tentative root reaches out, sampling each tiny rock for helpful minerals, wrapping its mycelium around microscopic crystals: The organic merges with the inorganic until the line is all messed up. Blurred. The salt is choking but the root perseveres, sends the okay to begin a green shoot heading the opposite direction. The sharp tip pierces the air and hardens.

Then another grows, and the roots form a network, trapping the water they need. This goes on for a few hundred years. The plants don’t bring the soil so much as cause it to occur.
It’s not a perfect system. To help take care of the inevitable dead plant matter, microorganisms arrive in their billions — but no earthworm can survive here, leaving most of it to rot. Which is, of course, what gives the dunes their special smell. Not earthy, we can’t describe it that way. Pre-earth. A deterministic sort of funk mixed with salt mixed with stubbornness; a grassland that refuses to be prairie, a beach with spiky hair. A refuge, eventually, for nesting birds and other, more delicate creatures.

II
We should have seen it coming it in that strange acronym: IoT, the round “o” squished between the rigid uppercase I and T.
Predicted it, maybe, by how often and reliably we began checking our smart phones. Everything vanished into it: The light switches, the voices of loved ones, the names of our favorite bands.
It started when the Things got their own Internet. It was fine, at first, nothing like ours, all hard edges and incomprehensible code. The to-do list got done and that’s all we cared about: The lights went on, the garbage went out, the kids got to school on time.
We loved our Internet with its goblins and easter eggs, its forum wormholes and happy videos of baby animals.
When the merger was proposed, we only imagined that it would make our lives better. We couldn’t fix the world, but we could Automate it.

III
We walk along the dunes, a thousand pinpricks challenging the attention paid to our heartbreak. We can’t go back through the gate, but the ocean roars in our ears, and it makes us curious. We want to know how all of this got here, how the earth started, where wind comes from. Our thumbs flinch but the information is not with us.
Funny, because it used to be ours. But so were the Things. We didn’t create their network, but we did set them down amongst the minerals. We didn’t think they would grow there. Then the rain fell, and that was that.

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